MIRIAM KATIN in the Toronto Star

“Child's Tale Took A While” / Toronto Star / Ho Che Anderson / June 8, 2006

Miriam Katin didn't become a cartoonist until she was 63. With her debut graphic memoir We Are On Our Own, she takes to the form like she's been doing it all her life.

The New Yorker's background as a designer for Disney and MTV, and as a graphic artist for the Israel Defence Forces, has to help. But Katin has also been crafting the book since she was a child, and it shows.

We Are On Our Own is the story of young Miriam, born in Budapest, and her mother, Esther, who are together forced to flee first the Nazis and then the Red Army. They are Jewish in a place where that means life or death. Mother and child are forced to cross vast terrains on foot, relying alternately on the kindness of strangers and Esther's strength and guile for their survival.

The illustrations, gorgeous throughout, lend the story a picture book vibe that is uncompromising in its portrayal of war's casual madness. There's a wistful quality to the pictures that evokes the fuzziness of childhood, yet Katin's backgrounds are filled with barren snowswept landscapes, routine anti-Semitism and destruction.

War is of course central to the narrative, yet it is handled in a way that is almost incidental. What drives the book is a powerful story of simple survival, because survival is the only choice.

Elegant though Katin's book is, there are some quibbles. For reasons that escape me, she names her child doppelganger Lisa — which spurs doubts about the book's accuracy that otherwise would not emerge.

Occasionally she breaks from the central tale to a separate, parallel narrative of the grown Lisa and her own daughter, set in New York City in the late '60s. These sequences are beautifully illustrated in full colour, a departure from the delicate pencil drawings that comprise the bulk of the book, but they can seem to emerge from left field, disrupting the main story.

But this is nitpicking. I'm looking forward to seeing what Katin comes at us with next.

Toronto's Ho Che Anderson is the author of Martin Luther King, King: A Comic Book Biographyy (Fantagraphics Books).

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